The Convergence of Illicit Networks on Social Media: the Human Smuggling-Drug Trafficking Nexus
Nilda M. Garcia
Mexican drug cartels have a strong social media presence. Social media is a tool that provides benefits and strengthens drug cartels by enhancing their organizational and operational capabilities. These communication outlets provide major opportunities for drug cartels, not only to engage in public relations strategies, gain legitimacy, to incite fear, and ease their recruitment tactics; but also, it has facilitated the diversification of criminal activities online, involving extortion, drug sales, and human smuggling.
In northern Mexico, human smuggling has been a highly lucrative illicit activity for years. Yet, the business has become more profitable due to the number of migrants crossing through Mexico trying to get to the US. Drug cartels have taken advantage of the migrant mobility surge to continue broadening their criminal portfolios and have also integrated it into their social media strategies. Facebook is one platform widely used to offer smuggling services and lure migrants. Different spheres of criminal networks converge in the virtual world, including smugglers or coyotes, transporters, or levantadores (lifters), document forgers, and drug traffickers.
Is social media facilitating the establishment of more complex and sophisticated illicit networks? Is social media use by criminal organizations for human smuggling purposes impacting violence and migration patterns in the northern and southern Mexican border? This article attempts to add an empirical approach to these questions and fill the gap in the literature still concentrated on journalistic accounts.
This article is divided as follows. The first section offers a short background on the human smuggling business in Mexico and its ties with drug trafficking. The second part presents previous works on the human smuggling-drug trafficking nexus and use of technology, followed by the methodology section. The fourth section is dedicated to the social media presence of drug cartels online. The fifth section analyses human smuggling on social media and conclusions.
According to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), migrant smuggling has become a global concern, and criminals are profiting from it. Since it is a covert activity, it is difficult to make a real assessment of its profits. The UNODC estimates that between the two principal smuggling routes known (from East, North and West Africa to Europe and from South America to North America) it generates about US$6.75 billion a year for criminals.
As millions of migrants mobilize through Mexico to get to the northern border, criminal organizations see a business opportunity and are cooperating and fighting for its dominance. In areas governed by powerful drug organizations, the fight over the control of key crossing or trafficking points along the border has strengthened during the last year. Besides the violence deepened by the decentralization and fragmentation of numerous criminal cells within the drug cartels, the highly profitable business of human smuggling is taking central stage making the borderlands more desirable for drug trafficking organizations. This was intensified by the peak of influx of migrants into the region. Current reports reflect historical increases of migrant mobility to the northern country, this pattern was particularly noticeable during the summer of 2021 reflecting an increase from 458,088 land border encounters with migrants in 2020 compared to 1,734, 686 in 2021.
The journey the migrants face from their place of origin to the Mexican northern border is one of many hardships and struggles. They confront abuse from criminal organizations and the Mexican authorities. They also suffer from kidnappings, extortion, extreme weather conditions, rape, forced recruitment by drug cartels, human trafficking, and a possible death.
According to a report published in El Universal, the Sinaloa cartel has gained terrain in the illegal market and has established a network of trafficking routes for migrants from Haiti, Cuba, Venezuela, Africa, and Asia. They charge up to US $22,000 for transporting migrants from Colombia and Central America through the southern and northern Mexican border. Throughout the corridors in Central American countries, the criminal networks for migrant smuggling have been established with the participation of corrupted military officials and the support of gangs such as MS-13 that have links with Mexican drug cartels.
Drug cartels have made use of social media to advance their business models, and human smugglers also take advantage of platforms such as Facebook to advertise their business and reach migrants. The content on the pages dedicated to human smuggling show junctions for criminal networks and thousands of migrants looking for smugglers online.
The Human Smuggling-Drug trafficking nexus and use of technology: previous research
A clear connection between criminal networks, particularly drug trafficking and human smuggling is hotly debated. Some authors point to an evident convergence between the two. Others question this nexus. Sanchez and Zhang write about the migrant smuggling-drug trafficking nexus in the US-Southwest border. They present the testimonials of 28 migrants who crossed Mexico into the US with the smugglers who interacted with drug traffickers during the journey. They posit that the structure of the human smuggling business has not really changed and remains a small-scale business operated by individuals and small criminal groups, debunking the myth about the takeover of drug cartels over the human smuggling business.
There are few empirical studies that explore human smuggling on social media platforms in general. Diba and colleagues studied the implications of the use of information and communication technologies (ICT) in the business of human smuggling in Europe, more specifically, in the UK, examining some Facebook pages among other technological outlets. In their study, they found that mobile and communication technologies have a role in the facilitating the practice of smugglers that mirrors the patterns of merchant and consumer online strategies and behavior in the licit travel and services industry. Since information is shared, they argue that the abstract conceptualization of the migrants’ position as passive and vulnerable because of the use of ICT is not entirely accurate and that the use of these technologies by smugglers, although useful, do not have an imminent impact on the business.
Although research about human smuggling and drug trafficking networks is advanced, studies on their nexus and interactions on social media platforms is not as developed. In general, works on the issue of human smuggling online are scarce and limited mostly to journalistic accounts. While there are ongoing efforts to advance the research on the area, there is still a need for more systematic analyses, in particular about the phenomenon on the US-Mexico border. This article adds to the effort to better understand the implications of human smuggling activities on social media and its connection to other criminal networks such as drug trafficking.
For the content analysis on cartel presence on Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube, the author evaluated social media utilization in four dimensions: i) presence, ii) activity, iii) purpose, and iv) effectiveness. For the examination of human smuggling on Facebook, dozens of pages have been monitored since June of 2021. The page “se lleva gente a estados Unidos,” was mainly used to conduct the content analysis for this study. This page was created in May 2021 and was followed by 11,300 people. About 350 posts were examined for the analysis. The page was monitored for several months; however, the analysis presented here is mainly focused on the posts shared during the month of June 2021. This period was chosen because during the summer of that year there was a peak in the number of migrants attempting to cross the US-Mexico border. This analysis has its limitations. As Facebook faces pressure from various groups and government officials to take down these accounts and their content, some of the pages are short-lived and abruptly close (as some of the ones explored here), but dozens re-open every day, with closely similar content and interactions. To complement the analysis, particular posts from other Facebook pages dedicated to human smuggling such as “quiero cruzar la frontera,” “Corridos.MX,” “Coyotes que Cruzan gente” and “viajes para estados unidos, cumple tus suenos.” are also examined.
Mexican Drug Cartels on Social Media
Powerful Mexican drug cartels such as the Sinaloa Cartel, the Zetas, Cartel del Noreste (CDN), or Cártel Jalisco New Generación (CJNG), have strong social media presence. These organizations have established social networks with thousands of followers on various platforms. For example, El Chapo’s twitter account had 610,376 followers. Social media is a tool that provides benefits and strengthens drug cartels by enhancing both, their organizational and operational capabilities. As mentioned before, these communication outlets provide major opportunities for drug cartels to engage in public relations strategies, gain legitimacy, incite fear, ease their recruitment tactics, send threatening messages to government authorities, civilians, and to warn off potential rivals.
Through their social media accounts drug lords let us contemplate their stories from their point of view, giving us direct access to their life in the underworld. They present a different metanarrative on the cartel. Different categories were found based on the content of posts from members of the Sinaloa cartel. These categories include description about their operations and missions, pictures and videos depicting their luxurious lifestyle, members of the cartel and especially the narco-juniors, such as Alfredo and Ivan Archivaldo Guzman, El Chayo, and El Mini Lic posting pictures with bales of money, drugs, gold-plated weapons, trips, planes, boats, Bentleys, Lamborghinis, Ferraris, ostentatious parties, fine jewelry, brand clothing, beautiful women, and exotic pets. In other words, they present a dreamed lifestyle which attracts especially young impressionable people to desire and pursue. Other types of posts that can be found are threatening messages, altruism, and recruitment activities.
Nonetheless, drug cartels employ different social media strategies. For example, the Zetas usage of social media differs from the Sinaloa cartel’s scheme. This criminal organization, better known for its hyper-violent modus operandi found in social media a medium through which it can extend this approach. The social media content of this group presents the most vile and grotesque pictures and footage. Their main online tactic is to use these outlets as a tool for psychological warfare. The approach can be effective for the organization to maintain control through fear on their domains, but also can work at a disadvantage since they can prompt the resentment of society.
In more recent years, the cartels have expanded and evolved in their social media strategies and presence. They are popular on Instagram, Snapchat, and also in the newest social media sensation Tik Tok, which points to a younger generation of drug traffickers and up-to-date social media practices. The already well-established presence on social media by these groups facilitates its utilization to further their illegal activities.
Human smuggling on social media and the Drug-trafficking nexus
Both drug cartels and human smugglers have found on social media platforms a helpful tool to enhance their illegal businesses. They openly use Facebook to advertise their services and offer migrants illegal crossings into the US. There are dozens of pages and groups with thousands of followers, where migrants are offered various services, such as crossing the border illegally, or buying forged documents. Some of these pages following grows by the thousands in just days. Through the content analysis conducted on the Facebook page “se lleva gente a estados unidos” some business and structures are unveiled. For example, the main actors involved and their roles, the modus operandi of some smugglers, criminal network convergence, and the interactions among all actors. Other important information can be found such as main points of crossing and entry between the US-Mexico border, smuggling methods, prices, and misinformation.
Through the content analysis of the Facebook page, open interactions between the smugglers, migrants, and other actors can be observed. Other key players that participate on these forums are transporters (people offering transportation for migrants from various states in Mexico to border cities with the US). Others advertise as levantadores or lifters, in charge of transporting the migrants once they are in the US to other cities outside the border area, including the crossing of checkpoints. Other services offered on these pages are people offering loans to pay the smugglers, and the sale of forged documents such as passports. Lastly, there is the presence of cartel members as well. All these actors interact and make business connections with each other. Figure 1 illustrates the main actors and interactions present on the Facebook page examined here, dedicated to human smuggling.
Figure 1. Main actors and interactions on human smuggling on the “se lleva gente a estados unidos” Facebook group page.Source: Author based on content analysis of Facebook group page “se lleva gente a estados unidos.”
Connections between smugglers and migrants are two-way. On the one hand, migrants write posts soliciting smuggler’s services and receive dozens of offers, including costs, points of crossing and methods (i.e., walking, boat, car, plane). On the other hand, smugglers will post announcements of upcoming trips, dates, group sizes, and services also with dozens of migrants replying, showing interest, and asking for more information. Some smugglers offer packages that include private charter flights from south and Central America. On the account examined here, the prices ranged from US $800 to US $20,000 depending on the country of origin, distance, and “luxury.” Figure 2 illustrates an example of interactions between smugglers and migrants on Facebook pages.
Figure 2. Example of interactions between smugglers and migrants on Facebook pages. Source: Facebook page. “Coyotes que Cruzan gente, México&USA.” Available at: (3) Coyotes que cruzan gente , México &USA | Facebook
Once the connection is established, future interchanges are made by inbox messaging or by phone, many smugglers post their phone numbers to contact them through WhatsApp or text message. Figure 3 shows an example of a conversation between smuggler and migrant offering its services. The smuggler is offering a crossing starting in Tapachula, Chiapas to San Antonio, Texas for US$6,000. In this interchange the smuggler explains the payment process: “2 thousand dollars down payment once we meet and the rest is to be paid once in San Antonio.” The screenshot on the right, shows the smuggler list of all the crossings he offers and prices. At the end he states: “once I have the people [clients/migrants] at the border, they will reach their destination within 7 days.”
Figure 3. Example of interactions between smugglers and migrants on WhatsApp once communication was established. Source: Author based on content analysis of Facebook group page “se lleva gente a estados unidos.”
Based on information provided on smuggler’s posts the methods of payment offered for the service vary. In most of the cases the smugglers asked for a down payment, and the rest to be covered once they get to the US. Others explained that the payments will be distributed throughout the journey, paying a particular amount at certain points during their trip. It is mentioned that these transactions and payments will be handled mostly in cash. A few smugglers offer the opportunity to pay “with work.” Interactions around these posts explain that these jobs refer to the trafficking drugs and can lead to forced recruitment by a drug cartel in a particular region.
On these pages, it is also mentioned that for security purposes, some smuggling services work with “claves”(password or key word), that each group will be assigned, and they will be asked for it during their trip, this is intended to be an assurance of protection for the migrants, but also works as a control mechanism by the criminal organization conducting the smuggling. Some smugglers also show and offer proof and references for the migrants to corroborate and show “legitimacy” of their work through videos. Figure 4 is an example of the latter. They upload posts offering their services followed by pictures of “successful crossings.” In this case, the picture portrays a group of migrants on a boat crossing the river at night, including their location. Also, in this post, the smuggler is stating that the US is “now accepting political asylum” for “father with child, mother with child, alone minors” for citizens from “Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.” Misinformation about migration policies, accessibility and status on immigration processes is common content of these pages.
Figure 4. Example of proof of crossings by smugglers. Source: Screenshot by Facebook page “Viaje a estados Unidos, cumple tu sueño.”
The smugglers also post about the specific routes where they conduct the illegal crossings. The state with the most mentions by smugglers offering crossings on this Facebook page was Chihuahua with 29%, followed by Baja California with 26%, Tamaulipas comes third with 22%, and Coahuila and Sonora with 12% and 11% respectively. The most popular city to smuggle migrants from the smugglers on this group was Cd. Juarez, in the state of Chihuahua, seconded by Piedras Negras, in the state of Coahuila, bordering Eagle Pass, in Texas. Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas comes in third, followed by Reynosa in the same state. Tecate in Baja California, Miguel Aleman in Tamaulipas, Acuña, Coahuila and Aldama in the state of Chihuahua were among the cities where smugglers offered their services (Figure 5).
Figure 5. Border crossing points offered by smugglers by city. Source: Author based on content analysis of Facebook group page “se lleva gente a estados unidos.”
Additionally, on these Facebook pages destined for migrant smuggling, direct and indirect connections to drug traffickers and gang members can be found. There is evidence of members of cartels involvement in human smuggling. During the period the analysis was conducted on the page “se lleva gente a estados unidos” there were about four accounts linked to cartel members, particularly CDN and from La Tropa del Infierno an armed wing of the CDN, which operate mainly in the state of Tamaulipas. In the page “Quiero cruzar la frontera” (figure 6, right) there is activity from members of Grupo Flechas Operativas (Operative Arrows Group), an elite armed group, working for Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, leader of the Sinaloa cartel, which dominates border areas in the state of Sonora. This account shared videos of trips with smugglers and migrants for weeks. Another user in the “Quiero cruzar la frontera” Facebook page offering smuggling services, appears to be part of the Vatos Locos (left), a criminal gang that operates in Mexico, in addition to other South and Central American countries. It has been reported that the gang has ties to Mexican drug cartels.
Figure 6. Example of interactions between smugglers and migrants on Facebook pages. Source: Screenshot of Facebook pages “Corridos.MX” and “Quiero cruzar la frontera.”
There are also indirect links. For smugglers that work independently from drug cartels they explain to possible clients that, among other costs, they must cover a “cobro de piso” or fee, “para la mafia” (for criminal groups). Cobro de piso is a tax drug cartels charge for using their domains to cross migrants, these costs ranged from US $700 to US $800.
This article demonstrates the presence of drug cartels on social media, its nexus with human smuggling and the convergence of criminal networks on platforms such as Facebook. The content analysis of these pages unveiled important information about main actors in the migrant smuggling business, strategies, routes, prices, and modus operandi.
Migrant smuggling is a highly lucrative illicit activity, criminal organizations such as drug cartels are becoming more active and direct participants in the smuggling business, they also participate indirectly by taxing migrants that cross through their domains, taking advantage of the migrant surge between the US-Mexico border. This work finds that social media platforms serve as hubs where different criminal networks converge and connect. This can lead to the growth of more sophisticated trafficking networks expanding across the Americas. If the current migrant mobility trends continue, and the underlying causes of migration are not fundamentally addressed, while the smuggling of migrants remains profitable, the incentive for criminal organizations such as drug cartels to take control over the business and increase their participation will continue to grow, which can lead to the solidification and strengthening of human smuggling networks.
As border controls are strengthened in the US-Mexico border and the crossing by migrants to the US becomes more challenging, the role of a smuggler or coyotes has become key. As Correa-Cabrera puts it, “[t]hose who arrived at the border are already there in groups or caravans and are stuck there sometimes are so desperate they hire the services of a smuggler.” It is difficult to assure that the use of social media by smugglers and drug trafficking organizations is contributing to the surge of migration or shaping migration patterns in the US-Mexico border. However, the opportunities of reach and instant connection between smugglers and migrants, social media platforms offer, provide ample opportunities to expand the illicit activity, serving as a facilitator to lure migrants, spread misinformation, and promote their services reaching thousands of people. This work is part of an ongoing effort to understand the complexities, structures, and convergence of illegal activities and criminal networks.
 Nilda M. Garcia. Mexico’s Drug War and Criminal Networks: The Dark Side of Social Media. New York: Routledge, 2020.
 The term coyote is used to refer to the person who smuggles immigrants across the US-Mexico border, in some regions of northern Mexico. They are also referred as polleros or guías.
 During the last 20 years the mobility of people from Latin and Central American countries has more than doubled. The United Nations World Migration Report (2020) estimates that in 2019, 26 million migrants made the journey and are residing in North America. What is more, according to the report, it is speculated that about 10 million people from the Latin American and Caribbean region lived in North America in 1990 compared to 26.6 million reported in 2019, out of which 12 million are from Mexico. The US is the most desirable destination among migrants all around the world, although not all of them that make the journey reach the country or get to stay.
 “Southwest Land Border Encounters.” US Customs and Border Protection. 2021, https://www.cbp.gov/newsroom/stats/southwest-land-border-encounters.
 David Spener. Clandestine Crossings: Migrants and Coyotes on the Texas-Mexico Border. Ithaca: Cornel University Press, 2009; Jeremy Slack and Scott Whiteford. “Viajes violentos: la transformacion de la migracion clandestina hacia Sonora y Arizona.” Norteamerica. Vol. 5, no. 2, 2010: pp. 79-107, https://www.redalyc.org/pdf/1937/193719383004.pdf and Simon Pedro Izcara Palacios. “Coyotaje y Grupos Delictivos en Tamaulipas.” Latin American Research Review. Vol. 47, no. 3. 2012: pp. 41–61, https://www.jstor.org/stable/23322173s.
 In Mexico, there have been a few cases of migrant massacres at the hands of drug cartels and/or police forces. The most recent case took place in the border city of Camargo, Tamaulipas, in January 22 of 2021, where 19 calcinated bodies were found in two incinerated trucks. The victims were identified as migrants from Guatemala that were trying to cross into Texas. The gruesome crime was committed by 12 cops from the elite group of the Grupo de Operaciones Especiales (GOPES), who confessed to the shooting but not to the burning or dismemberment of the bodies. The latter actions have been attributed to members of the violent drug trafficking organizations that operate in the region, either the Gulf Cartel or Cartel del Noreste (Northeast Cartel – CDN). Other massacres took place in Cadereyta, a municipality in the state of Nuevo Leon in 2012, where 49 dismembered bodies were found, among them migrants. One of the most devastating cases was the San Fernando massacre of 2011, where 72 migrants were killed in the most inhumane ways in the hands of the Zetas cartel. A year later, in that same municipality, the authorities found about 200 bodies in clandestine graves, most of the bodies were identified as migrants. It is a long and dangerous journey for migrants crossing states permeated with violent drug cartels, and where most of the time are not protected by the authorities.
For more information on these cases See Lorena Arroyo. “Los policías involucrados en la masacre de Tamaulipas confiesan haber matado a los migrantes, pero niegan haberlos quemado.” El Pais. 25 February 2021, https://elpais.com/mexico/2021-02-25/los-policias-involucrados-en-la-masacre-de-tamaulipas-confiensan-haber-matado-a-los-migrantes-pero-niegan-haberlos-quemado.html and Lorena Arroyo, Pablo Ferri, Hector Guerrero, Monica Gonzalez. “La massacre de Tamaulipas: El sueño americano muere en Mexico.” El Pais. 20 February 2021, https://elpais.com/especiales/2021/la-masacre-de-tamaulipas-el-sueno-americano-muere-en-mexico/.
 Jose Melendez. “Cartel de Sinaloa, tras el trafico de migrantes.” El Universal. 30 September 2021, https://www.eluniversal.com.mx/mundo/cartel-de-sinaloa-tras-el-trafico-de-migrantes.
 Op cit., Spener at Note 5; Op cit. Izcara Palacios at Note 5; Gabriela E. Sanchez, and Sheldon X. Zhang. “Rumors, Encounters, Collaborations, and Survival: The Migrant Smuggling-Drug Trafficking Nexus in the U.S. Southwest.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Vol. 676, no. 1. 2018: pp. 135–151, https://doi.org/10.1177/0002716217752331.
 Parisa Diba, Georgios Papanicolaou, and Georgios A. Antonopoulos. “The digital routes of human smuggling? Evidence from the UK.” Crime Prevention and Community Safety. Vol. 21. 2019: pp. 159–175, https://doi.org/10.1057/s41300-019-00060-y.
 These pages have been or were monitored for several months since March of 2021; however, for the purpose of this work, only particular posts from different pages are included and analyzed.
 Op cit., Garcia at Note 1.
 Through their social media accounts drug lords let us contemplate their stories from their point of view, giving us direct access to their life in the underworld. Different categories were found based on the content of their posts, including descriptions about their operations and missions, pictures and videos depicting their luxurious lifestyle, members of the cartel and especially the narco-juniors, such as Alfredo and Ivan Archivaldo Guzman, El Chayo, and El Mini Lic posting pictures with bales of money, drugs, gold-plated weapons, trips, planes, boats, Bentleys, Lamborghinis, Ferraris, ostentatious parties, fine jewelry, brand clothing, beautiful women, and exotic pets. They present a dream life which attracts especially young impressionable people to pursue the lifestyle. The Zetas usage of social media differs from the Sinaloa Cartel’s strategy. This criminal organization, better known for its hyper-violent modus operandi found in social media a medium through which it can extend this approach. The social media content of this group presents the most vile and grotesque pictures and footage. Their main online tactic is to use these outlets as a tool for psychological warfare. This study was conducted before Joaquin Guzman “El Chapo” was incarcerated in the United States. This account has since been closed.
 James P. Farwell. ‘The Media Strategy of ISIS.” Global Politics and Strategy. Vol. 56, no. 6, 2014: pp. 49–55, https://doi.org/10.1080/00396338.2014.985436; Helle Dale. “Social Media Prove Double-Edged Sword for ISIS.” The Daily Signal. 23 October 2014, https://www.dailysignal.com/2014/10/23/social-media-prove-double-edged-sword-isis/.
 The fame and admiration for Mexican drug cartels are also expressed by other criminal organizations around the world. Powerful gangs such as the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), Comando Vermelho (CV) in Brazil, or MS-13 have replicated the social media strategies of the Mexican cartels. Not only are Mexican Cartels followed and admired by Latin American criminal groups, but also by other criminal and violent groups classified as terrorist organizations. For example, the Grey Wolves also known as Idealist Hearths from Turkey have sent videos greeting Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada and the Sinaloa Cartel organization. Example of video post by a member of “La Chapiza: faction of the Sinaloa Cartel, https://www.tiktok.com/@ivansillo_701/video/6980049492837977350?is_copy_url=1&is_from_webapp=v1&lang=en. The Grey Wolves or Idealist Hearths is a Turkish extremist far-right organization responsible for horrific acts of violence in Turkey. Have been classified by the US as a terrorist organization, https://twitter.com/kavelalpaslan/status/1397539973381992454.
 “Human Smuggling Rampant on Facebook Amid Border Surge.” Tech Transparency Project, 10 June 2021, https://www.techtransparencyproject.org/articles/human-smuggling-rampant-facebook-amid-border-surge.
 “MEX104133.FE.” Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. 13 July 2012, Ottawa: Canada, https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/eoir/legacy/2013/11/07/MEX104133.FE.pdf.
 As cited in Alex J. Rouhandeh. “Human Smugglers Charging Up to $15,000 Per Person for U.S. Border Crossing.” Newsweek. 3 June 2021, https://www.newsweek.com/human-smugglers-charging-15000-per-person-us-border-crossing-1597043.